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Farmers: Poor Weather

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 3rd October 2016.

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Photo of Harold McKee Harold McKee UUP 2:45 pm, 3rd October 2016

4. Mr McKee asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the implications for farmers of the poor weather conditions in large areas of rural Northern Ireland over recent months. (AQO 369/16-21)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I am fully aware of the impact that the recent poor weather has had on farms across Northern Ireland, particularly in the north and west of the Province. Unsettled weather during the summer months has resulted in difficult conditions for silage making, slurry spreading and the harvesting of arable crops. In localised areas, cattle have been housed earlier than usual, which means that feed and forage are already being used, at an additional cost to the farmer, and the harvesting of spring cereal crops has not yet been completed. Also, much straw has still to be baled, and progress with the potato harvest and the sowing of winter cereals has been slow. All those issues combined to have an adverse impact on cash flows on farms.

In June, as the Member will be aware, I announced my commitment to pay at least 95% of eligible basic payment scheme applicants in December, and I confirmed that I would introduce advance payments this year from 16 October. That will undoubtedly help farmers to meet the financial challenges that arise as a result of the recent poor weather. In addition to that, CAFRE advisers are available at business development group meetings to discuss with farmers and growers how their business might respond to the impact of poor weather conditions. CAFRE will also deliver feed efficiency and business management workshops in the areas worst affected by poor weather conditions during the autumn and winter. Further guidance is available on the DAERA website that will help farmers to plan for a good supply of fodder for the winter months ahead and to make the best decisions for their farm businesses.

Photo of Harold McKee Harold McKee UUP

Thank you, Minister, for your answers thus far. The problem has been exacerbated by further bad weather over the last fortnight. In addition to a likely shortage of second-cut fodder becoming a serious problem, there is the increasing pressure of slurry tanks not being emptied. Will the Minister now agree to extend the slurry-spreading period to allow farmers to have their tanks emptied in an environmentally safe way?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I am aware that calls have been made for farmers to be granted a dispensation to spread slurry during the closed period, which comes into force at midnight on Saturday 15 October. There is no legal provision in the Nitrates Action Programme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2014 to grant a complete waiver. I want to be clear that, in exceptional circumstances beyond the control of and not foreseeable by an individual farmer, a defence may be made for non-compliance with some of the requirements of the NAP regulations, including spreading organic manures during the closed period.

The challenges faced by some farmers over recent months as a result of high rainfall and the severe weather conditions in 2015 have been exceptional; therefore, where a farmer has reasonable cause to spread after the end of the season, the farmer will be able to spread. Such cases would be considered by the NIEA on a case-by-case basis and must be evidence-based, showing that the farmer had taken all reasonable steps to manage the situation and was left with no alternative. I encourage farmers who are experiencing particular difficulties to speak either to their DAERA adviser or to the local farming organisation.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I remind Members wishing to ask a question that they need to rise continually in their seat.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I come from Fermanagh, where we get our fair share of wet weather, and some farmers in my constituency still have to harvest their grass. Will she outline what recent discussions she has had with representatives of the farming sector on measures to minimise the impact of the poor weather conditions on farmers?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, as I said in answer to the previous question, I have had conversations about how we can assist farmers moving forward. I have met the Ulster Farmers' Union — I meet it regularly — and I plan to go to Fermanagh later this week to speak to local groups from the Ulster Farmers' Union. Those discussions will be ongoing. While the weather is starting to improve, that does not necessarily mitigate all their concerns. I will be in a better place after Thursday.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I thank the Minister for her answers so far; indeed, I commend her for giving some help to farmers. Unfortunately, it rains not only in Fermanagh but in Tyrone. I have just one additional point: is it possible for landowners who have surplus grass to allow other farmers to graze that land over the coming weeks?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

For direct payments and areas of natural constraint (ANC) payments, farmers need to demonstrate that they actively farm all the land that they have claimed. That can be done by demonstrating that they have the decision-making power, the benefits and the financial risks for the majority of the agricultural activity carried out on the land. Where the farmer has carried out substantial amounts of agricultural activity on the land during 2016, permitting someone else to graze the land for six to eight weeks is unlikely to undermine their ability to meet the requirement. That may not be the case if a farmer with surplus grass has carried out little or no agricultural activity on his land in 2016. I recommend that any agreements are documented so that farmers can then provide the necessary evidence to ensure that they demonstrate the agricultural activity they have carried out on the land during the year.